Barrels of fun

The popularity of clay sports is taking wing, especially among teenage boys and girls

BURLINGTON — The sound of gunshots filled the air during Alex Gosman’s 12th birthday party.

Past celebrations have included bowling, paintball, and a Patriots game. “But we were looking for something different, and it’s tough to find something in the middle of November,” said his father, Andrew, not counting on the sunny, 62-degree afternoon.

Four boys stood on a blanket of fallen oak leaves and pine needles at the Minute Man Sportsman’s Club in Burlington, listening intently to Art Middleton, a National Sporting Clay s Association coach from North Andover. He gave them a lesson on how to hold a shotgun and hit clay birds, the 4-inch, neon-orange discs that are ejected from machines and obliterated by eager marksmen.

Dressed in spotless tan pants, a pressed blue oxford, and a snappy tan vest with pockets to hold his shot, Middleton looked as though he’d stepped out of an Orvis catalog. The retired 63-year-old real estate executive has been shooting trap, skeet, and sporting clays for two decades. Each of the sports has different playing fields and rules but shares the same goal: Shoot the clay bird.

“Take your left hand and point it at my nose,” said Middleton. “Now take your right hand and point it at my nose.” He explained that this is a quick way to determine the dominant eye.

Two hula hoops were laid on the ground as markers for the boys to stand inside , a clever way to ensure they didn’t lurch forward or wander too close to one another. Their first target was a group of red, blue, and orange balloons tied across a wood pylon. As Gosman pulled the trigger, his small frame jerked backward from the force of the shotgun. The balloon exploded, and his friends cheered. Next stop was the skeet range.

“Pull a number 5 please,” Middleton ordered. From the sideline, Lance Wil l sey , father of 11-year-old Jake, pushed the button on the control box, and a bright orange disc whizzed through the air. A shot rang out, and the clay bird shattered.

Clay sports have grown dramatically more popular with middle- and high – school students over the past decade. For the second year the Leominster Sportsmen’s Association partnered with the Leominster Recreation Department and offered a summer program called Clay Target. The six-week camp teaches kids the game of American trap along with safe gun handling and ends with a 100-bird shoot.

“The first year we had five kids sign up. The second year we had 10,” said James Carnivale of Lunenburg, a real estate agent and certified instructor who has helped run the program. “We had to [close it out] because we could only handle so many.”

The Scholastic Clay Target Program, created by the National Shooting Sports Association to expose students from elementary through high school to the sports and encourage the formation of local teams, has seen a sharp increase in membership. The program began in 2001 with 700 kids and now has more than 8,300 in 41 states. Last year alone the program grew by more than 40 percent overall and had an 84 percent increase in participation among girls.

This year the Amateur Trap Shooting Association’s Grand American World Trap Shooting Championship in Sparta, Ill., the largest shooting competition in the world, had more than 1,600 Scholastic Clay Target participants from grades 3 through 12. They accounted for 27 percent of the competitors.

Seth Politi, 15, of Lexington got into clay shooting despite discouragement from his father, Stephen, who didn’t like the idea of his son using a gun. But Seth persisted, and now he is the top-ranked shooter in the country for his age group. He’s in his third year of shooting, and he packs a Krieghoff K-80 shotgun.

“I’ve tried so many sports, and when I got to this I just loved it,” he says. “I never get sick of it, and I want to be the best I can.”

He’s got a good teacher: Bill Anzaldi, 60, of Mattapoiset t , happens to be the top-rated trap shooter in Massachusetts.

“My goal for [Seth] during the first year was to get on the second team, ” said Anzaldi, who has sent seven students to the Amateur Trap Shooting Association’s All-American Team. “He said he wanted to make the first team, which he did , and the following year he wanted to become the captain, which he is.”

The next goal for many of these kids it to make it on to an Olympic team for trap or skeet. Mark Muzika, 20, of Dover is an Olympic hopeful in the International skeet category, which differs from American skeet in the way the gun is mounted and the timing and position in which the bird is ejected. Muzika, who is among the top 15 shooters in the country, missed the 2004 Olympics by one spot.

“I don’t remember my score, but I do remember being pretty upset,” said Muzika, a pre-med student at UMass-Amherst. “I practice when I’m on break and during the summer. I was approached by the Army to be on their paid team, but I’d rather stay in school.”

Grant Brining, 12, an avid Boy Scout from Groton, was introduced to trap when he accompanied his scoutmaster and his son to a shooting range last year. Now a student of Anzaldi, he practices two to three times a week and goes through 500 birds each time.

While some kids might wish for a new bike or the latest video game for the holidays, Brining hopes for a DT-10 Trident Beretta with a single and a double barrel.

“This is my sport and passion,” Brining said. “I think it’s more exciting than kicking a ball around.”

Quick guide to clay sports

Skeet: Uses two machines to eject clay discs, or birds — one on the left, called a high house, which stands 10 feet tall, and one on the right, called a low house, which is 3 feet high. Targets fly in a fixed trajectory across the range. Marksmen move around eight different positions using 25 shots, which is considered a round.

Trap: Uses a single machine that oscillates 180 degrees forward throwing a random target. Trap has five positions and five shots in each position, for total of 25 in a round. A competition usually consists of 100 or 200 rounds .

Sporting clays: Covers a large area of land with many stations and machines designed to simulate hunting. It is frequently referred to as “golf with a shotgun.”

To find a clay sports club in Massachusetts, visit claytargetsonline.com/list.php/MA

For information on colleges and clay sports, visit nrahq.org/compete/college_lookup.asp

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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